Another reason why privatisation was such a wet idea

Malcolm lives in a desert — official!

Well, not quite, but there’s this:

The south-east of England is officially in a state of drought, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has announced.

The announcement came as Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman hosted a drought summit.

In parts of south-east England groundwater levels are lower than in the infamously dry summer of 1976.

Water companies, farmers and wildlife groups discussed the situation at the summit.

A true cynic (obviously no relation) might muse:

  • Well, Caroline Spelman needs all the positive spin she can get, after recent events; and
  • A “drought summit” should cure all ills.

What does jar, though, is further down that BBC report:

Ms Spelman said she wanted water companies to look at the possibility of connecting pipe networks so they could transfer water from wetter parts of the country.

Severn Trent’s water director, Andy Smith, said: “I would agree that we should be looking at interconnecting the networks between the various water companies.

“What has happened quite understandably is each water company has tended to focus on its own area.

“And we believe that there will be opportunities with relatively small levels of investment to make inter-connections between different organisations to try and get the water from the north and the west where it’s relatively wet down to the south and the east.”

This is, of course, the hydrological equivalent of rocket science.

They could do it then. Why not now?

It rains everywhere in Britain. London (which the main centre of population and therefore of domestic water consumption) gets around 650mm of “precipitation” in the average year — 25½ inches in real money. Nip across two hundred miles to Yr Wyddfa (OK, Anglophones: make that Snowdonia) and there are spots which manage four-and-a-half metres (over 14 feet).

In short, it’s all a process of getting a liquid from Point A, where it is plentiful and reliable, to the tap at drought-stricken Redfellow Hovel. Just before the death of Elizabeth I, Edmund Colthurst came up with a scheme to bring fresh, clean water twenty miles from Hertfordshire to north London. The New River was doing the business, thanks to early Stuart-era engineering, by 1613. That’s a measure of how difficult it ought to be.

Now here’s a funny thing

When Margaret Thatcher’s government pushed through water privatisation, the very first sections of the Water Act, 1989, dealt with national structures and the National Rivers Authority. The NWA was stuck with what was left after everything else had been flogged off for commercial gain; but it was a fleeting recognition that not everything aquatic could be solved on a regional company-by-company basis.

Obviously to a free-marketeer any notion of a “national” provision is anathema — so the Major government deleted this section in 1991. Instead, the Environment Agency took over any powers that the NWA had, which amounts to how much can be drawn from ground-water and rivers. It is supposed to manage the “strategic” regulation reservoirs. What it clearly lacks is any goad to persuade the individual companies to co-operate and share water resources. The fragmentation continues into the structure of the Environment Agency itself, which is partitioned into a score of areas and seven separate regions. Only in 2007, after lethal and destructive flooding, did parliament undertake any detailed scrutiny of the Environment Agency — and, even then, the emphasis seemed to be on breaking up rather than co-ordinating national resources and problems.

Natural and navvy-made order

Look at a map of England, and the solution is right before our eyes. The Google map of our rivers and canals is instructive (as right)

Even the connectors may already be there. Thanks to the engineers of the late eighteenth century there are ready-made watercourses across England: the canals and canalised rivers. They are used, but underused. Of course, any national authority for the canals must be scotched: for six decades British Waterways, for all its faults, had the responsibility, and was answerable to parliament. This year it, too will be devolved into the Canal & River Trust: more localised, and fragmented.

There is no boy

Time for a literary reference:

Merlyn took off his pointed hat when he came into this chamber, because it was too high for the roof, and immediately there was a scamper in one of the dark corners and a flap of soft wings, and a tawny owl was sitting on the black skull-cap which protected the top of his head.

“Oh, what a lovely owl!” cried the Wart.

But when he went up to it and held out his hand, the owl grew half as tall again, stood up as stiff as a poker, closed its eyes so that there was only the smallest slit to peep through—as you are in the habit of doing when told to shut your eyes at hide-and-seek—and said in a doubtful voice:

“There is no owl.”

Then it shut its eyes entirely and looked the other way.

“It is only a boy,” said Merlyn.

“There is no boy,” said the owl hopefully, without turning round.

That is very much the attitude of the water “industry” on the idea for a national water grid. There is no problem:

Water UK believes that through a combination of medium- and long-term measures adequate water resources can be available to meet society’s needs within environmental limits. What is needed is agreement between stakeholders that all have a part to play in deciding and implementing sustainable water policy. No single group – the government, for example, or the water companies – can alone ensure security of supply because there is no single ‘magic bullet’ solution.

Which doesn’t match up with what Severn Trent’s water director, Andy Smith, was quoted as saying by the BBC (above).

With that bone-headedness to contend with, Mrs Spelman, with her “summit”, needs all the help she can get.

If only water-supply were something “sexy”, costing mega-multiples more: HS2, or Boris Island, for examples.

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2 Comments

Filed under BBC, Britain, broken society, Conservative Party policy., economy, Literature, London, politics, reading, Tories., Wales

2 responses to “Another reason why privatisation was such a wet idea

  1. Doubting Thomas

    I’m waiting for someone cleverer and more important than me to start to hang the millstones of the effects of privatisation around the Tory neck. You’ve instanced water and the lack of any means to achieve a national solution. Add electricity where the destruction of the CEGB eliminated any possibility of a strategy for future generating plant and fuel (the market will provide as I recall that smarmy old pantaloon Parkinson saying) and the recruitment, training and development of a stream of engineers and the consequent destruction of the UK capacity to manufacture and generating plant. Take in also the market driven gas and electricity companies who have erected a tariff struture that passeth all human understanding and who have removed all their information to call centres so the chance of the consumer getting a sensible answer is removed. Then put in the railways where the fiction that the way in which flights were sold could be translated to railway travel so instead of turing up at a station on a whim if you fancied a trip somewhere and being able to buy a ticket at a reasonable price you have to book in advance through a ticket pricing system that rivals the energy companies’ fuel tariffs and not know if you’ve actually got a fair price.

    Hell roast Thatcher and Major. Incidentally although not a believer, I could be tempted to convert if I could be sure that Major would spend eternity standing crammed in an overcrowded sub standard standard class carriage with all the civil servants and politicians who aided and abetted his privatisation of the railways.

    Thanks for the space. I feel better for the rant.

  2. Pingback: Here come the rantin’ lads | Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service

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